Mark Lockheart/Jasper Høiby/Liam Noble, Vortex Jazz Club, London – review

The names Lockheart, Høiby and Noble weren’t the first to spring to mind when a new UK jazz chamber group was announced. The three well-established bandleaders and composers are more commonly associated with rumbustious ensembles and powerhouse percussion. Mark Lockheart played in the saxophone section of the anarchic 1980s big band Loose Tubes and for more than a decade has been in the front line of the thrashy, electronica-enhanced Polar Bear. Jasper Høiby is the bassist/leader of the jazz power-trio Phronesis and though pianist Liam Noble’s 20-year career spans free jazz, Japanese death poetry and the standard repertoire, drum-free jazz trios are conspicuous by their absence.

This gig was the group’s debut, and all but one of the compositions was getting a first public airing – at least half the tunes presented had yet to be titled. They opened with Lockheart’s “Square”, a soulful bucolic ramble that shifted harmonic centre, texture and mood. It faded pensively, with Lockheart’s sustained notes hovering over Noble’s carefully crafted, emotionally ambiguous arpeggios.

Each composition was similarly episodic and unfurled through surprising twists and unison riffs, swapped roles and three-way improvisation. There were few fast tempos; instead the trio offered a brace of ballads and episodes that were poised delicately on the cusp between medium tempo and slow drag – Lockheart’s “The Pianist” was a highlight of percussive single-note piano placed precisely across the beat. Noble’s “Mr Rack”, named after a particularly unpleasant technical drawing teacher, also stood out. Opening as an eerie abstraction, the piece built up improv steam before ending with Høiby ruminating on bass over Noble’s minimalist chords.

Ensemble discipline was maintained over both sets, but not at the expense of the strong personalities involved. Lockheart delivered contemporary lines with a breathy tone, Høiby was strong-toned and powerful on acoustic bass, and Noble’s sparse, bittersweet voicings and stylistic range impressed throughout. Though clearly still a work in progress – there was a bit of manuscript shuffling between numbers – the trio sounded great together, didn’t over-elaborate and fully deserved their encore from a nicely filled Vortex. They play at New York’s Rochester Jazz Festival later this month and an album is in the offing. I look forward to its release.

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